When you’re writing for the web, there are many, many things to consider.
To help our readers keep track of many of these considerations, Econsultancy regularly posts helpful tips and reminders about writing high-quality online copy.
- 10 common online copywriting mistakes.
- 12 handy tips for writing better web copy.
- Nine writing ‘rules’ you can safely ignore.
But where do these tips come from? Are they just general ‘rules of thumb’ or is there some scientific substance behind them?
Though most writing tips come from writers sharing their personal approach, research does exist which supports some of the best practices.
Three such tips are listed below along with links to the original research, for the curious.
Before we start…
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Tip 1: Use simple vocabulary
Using simple words makes sense. Doing so forces the writer to think clearly and makes it easier for the reader to understand what is being said.
But there is another reason why writing simple words is a good idea. In short, literacy in English-speaking countries is not as high as you may think.
A recent study by ETS, a non-profit dedicated to advancing education, measured three aspects of reading comprehension across print vocabulary, sentence processing, and passage comprehension.
After testing a variety of people in a number of countries, the researchers organized the participants by the level of reading proficiency.
The first chart, Table 2, shows the distribution of subjects by levels of reading proficiency. Notice that, for all countries, around half of participants are below level three.
And the second, Table 10, shows the relative time it takes for people with proficiency below level four to complete a passage comprehension task.
The paper notes that level three is a reference point for ‘a typical, skilled adult reader.’
So, more than half of participants in the study take much more time to comprehend writing than a ‘typical’ adult reader.
The study has more details about the methods used and the differences between the levels, but the overall point is that people read at very different levels.
When you are writing for the web you typically cannot choose your audience, so your readers may require more time than you think to understand your writing.
And in our age of short attention spans, difficult reading could mean that many people will not read what you have written.
There are no quick solutions for this issue. Using focus groups to review your brand copy would be ideal, but it would be a lot of work to manage the testing and implement the recommendations.
One easier way to help keep your vocabulary simple is to check what you write against a basic English dictionary.
Ogden’s Basic English publishes a 2,000 word index which can help you identify words that should be easier for all audiences to understand.
Once having reviewed the vocabulary, be mindful of the words that you write. If you find yourself reaching for a thesaurus or dictionary when writing, then be aware that you may end up losing readers.
Tip 2: Use short sentences
Another way to ensure you don’t lose readers is to use simple sentences.
In a frequently-referenced (yet sadly not available online) research paper, the American Press Institute measured reader comprehension against sentences with a varying number of words.
The study found that:
- For sentences with less than eight words, readers understood 100% of the information.
- For sentences with nine to 14 words, average comprehension was 90% of the information.
- But for long sentences (up to 43 words), average comprehension dropped to as low as 10%.
The results make sense and the recommendation is clear. Use shorter sentences.
(Source: “Readers’ Degree of Understanding,” American Press Institute)
Tip 3: Help readers navigate your writing
Simple words and concise sentences are a good way to ensure readers will understand your writing, but they still have to read it.
According to research by the Nielsen Norman Group (NN Group), people do not read sentences in sequential order when browsing the web.
Instead, they ‘scan the pages’ and choose sentence fragments to get the information that they are looking for.
Because of this behavior, tests indicate that text which is ‘concise, scannable, and objective’ enjoys a comprehension boost of 124% among readers.
The link offers more details of the research, but the NN Group offers suggestions on a few simple things writers can do to achieve this boost in comprehension:
- Use highlighted words
- Include meaningful sub-headings throughout an article
- Use bulleted lists
- Keep paragraphs to one idea
- And remove at least half of the words used in offline writing.
Following these guidelines are a good way to ensure that readers will, at the very least, skim your writing correctly and understand the point you are making.
What more can you ask for?
For experienced online copywriters, these tips are obvious.
Most successful writers online use simple words and sentences and employ headlines, bullet points, and emphasis to help readers navigate long blocks of text.
It’s good to know, though, why we should do so.
Research shows that people are simply more likely to read and understand what you have written if you follow these guidelines.